Caring can be a matter of life and death

December 15, 2008

A young pharmacist gets a lesson in caring that lasts a lifetime.

I walked by the pharmacy to take a look and saw a well-dressed middle-aged woman about the size of one of the Olsen twins in the waiting area. She tapped her right foot impatiently on the floor. I wanted to tell her that slowing down would be much better for her, but I was the guy buying Fritos and a Diet Coke instead of a real meal.

"It won't be too much longer," the technician said meekly. "Five prescriptions take a little time."

He was 50-something and his clothes looked clean, but worn. He was drinking a bottle of water. He knew exactly what was going on. He twisted in the chair so his back was to the woman. He was dismissing her with his body language.

The pharmacist came over, and the technician explained what was going on. He said to the woman, "It's almost 100 degrees out there, with 90 percent humidity." He looked at the man. "He just needs to cool off. He's not causing anyone harm."

"I want him out." She stood tall, hands on her hips.

"Mrs. King," the pharmacist started.

"Don't argue with me. I don't have to do business at this store."

The homeless man saved the day. He stood. He tipped his head back and drained the bottle. He gave the woman a wilting stare, and she actually stepped back. He said to the pharmacist, "Rick, I gotta go."

I said to the woman, "Don't you have a heart?"

"Mind your own g------ business," she said.

I got a big dose of bleeding-heart credentials in 1972. I was the manager of a small chain drug store in Pacheco, Calif. It was August and 110 degrees. There was no humidity in the Diablo Valley. Your perspiration dried in an instant. This was not the time of the day to be out. Golf courses were empty. Tennis courts were deserted.

A patient I knew well stepped into the pharmacy entrance and gave me a look.

"What's wrong?"

"There's a man with a dog in the alley. He's sitting with his back against the wall." Her face told me she was concerned. "Will you see if he's okay, Jim?"

I went out and asked him if he was sick. He said he was all right, but needed some water for his dog.

"How about you? Are you hungry? Thirsty?"

"Both," he croaked. I noticed his lower lip was cracked. I remember his red hair and three-day beard. I barely acknowledged him as a human being. I was still young.

I bought a sub, coleslaw, chips, and a giant soda. For the dog I bought water that I poured into a pan and three hot dogs, without buns.